Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Get Out and Vote

     It's a bit weird being in Costa Rica during the first Presidential election for which I am able to vote. Absentee ballots have already been sent in and, even though the election is one week from today, I have a sense of it already have come and gone. For the majority of Americans, however, this is far from true. Now is the time to become informed citizens (if one is not already), understand the positions of candidates and begin to decide who is going to earn your trust and, by extension, your vote. It's a civic duty, and we should all be proud to carry it out!

For many, choosing whom to vote for is a matter of feel. We decide if we feel comfortable with one candidate over another, perhaps taking into account his or her positions on certain issues that personally effect us. If we are Catholic (or any Christian who seriously strives to imitate Christ), our criteria must rise above this very cursory and self-centered assessment. We are called to use a well-formed conscience and test the candidate's positions on that conscience. As my hometown Bishop, Most Rev. Richard Malone wrote recently:
We recognize that there can be proposals for addressing some pressing social concerns, such as the economy, immigration reform, or retirement security, on which people of good will can reach different conclusions. This is the exercise of prudential judgment, which demands that we never justify an immoral means to achieve a good end. 
Prudential judgment does not come into play with every issue that confronts us. Not every course of action is morally acceptable. There are situations in which what is being proposed is an intrinsic evil. Intrinsic evils are actions that must always be opposed because they are always, by their nature, gravely opposed to the will of God. Examples of intrinsic evils are abortion, euthanasia and physician assisted suicide, embryonic stem cell research and human cloning, genocide, torture and racism. Intrinsic evils undercut the dignity of the human person. If we think about it for a moment, we can see how all of the life issues are connected. Erosion of respect for the life of any person or group in society necessarily diminishes respect for all life. 
Without a doubt, the conscientious Catholic faces many complex and difficult decisions in preparing to vote. That is why an informed conscience, and confidence in the moral wisdom of our Church, is so important. A Catholic may never vote for a candidate who supports an intrinsic evil if, in voting for her or him, one is doing so in support of that immoral position. Conversely, a Catholic cannot justify voting for a candidate who opposes an intrinsic evil if that candidate is known to be indifferent to other serious moral issues involving human life. 
There may be times when we find it necessary to vote for a candidate who holds an unacceptable position on a grave moral issue for other grave moral reasons.  
     It is clear to see why many Catholics become confused, even when they know the intrinsic evils they must not implicitly condone by way of their vote. In the final analysis, a well-formed conscience will help any voter to make the best moral use of their vote for all humans, keeping in mind the priority that must be given to avoiding candidates who support intrinsically evil acts. This takes a great deal of courage and love for God, sacrificing what may be economically or socially convenient for us. Yet, if we need any inspiration, we need look no further than Jesus upon the Cross. If He laid down His life for all humans, surely I can sacrifice my comfort, if that's what it means to protect the dignity of life.

      May you all exercise your right to vote come November 6th and, as with everything, may you glorify God in so doing!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Why're We Eating Pineapples and Other Mysteries

     This morning, I walked by my host mom cutting up a pineapple for breakfast and I began to think again about a topic this has been on my mind a few times at different points during my two months in Costa Rica: how did humans find out that some particularly unappealing fruits and vegetables were palatable and, in fact, quite appealing? How surprised must that person have been who first laid eyes upon a spiky pineapple and decided to cut it open, revealing sweet yellow fruit? What was the person thinking who first plucked a dirt-covered carrot out of the ground and into their mouth? How long did it take for people to realize that bananas taste exponentially better if you wait for them to turn a little brown? Potatoes, kiwis, cantaloupes and coconuts: the list of weird fruits and vegetables is very long. Yet, for all their strangeness, these foods provide just what the body needs.

     If you will allow, I would like to propose that Christianity is very much like the discovery of the aforementioned"weird" edible plants . To understand how humanity arrived at either, we must begin with hunger. Just as people have a physical hunger that can only be satisfied with external food, we also have a psychological hunger to know the being or force that created us. Yet neither the "weird" foods nor Christianity were necessarily found on the "first try"for many civilizations. Many fruits and vegetables were undoubtedly tested by humans. Yet some of these did not satisfy the need for nourishment. Likewise, the world's great religions are monuments of man's search for God. They contains some truths, but ultimately we cannot sustain ourselves on them because they do not reveal the living God that is inexhaustibly expressed in the Christian Mystery.

     What do I mean when I say "the Christian Mystery"? At its core, I think the Mystery is that the Divine Creator, God, intends nothing less than to share eternal life with us. This earthly life we are all engaged in right now certainly contains mysteries and is itself worthy of tremendous wonder and contemplation. Yet this life is at least tangible to us. We may not understand it all, but we could at least conceive of its existence without God. In contrast, the Christian Mystery-- that the destiny of humanity is not simply a life that is given, whether by God or random chance, but rather a life that is shared in full and everlasting communion with the Trinitarian God-- is a concept that is otherworldly and thus could come through no source other than God. This movement of God, the search for us after our rejection of Him through pride, was so strong that that He willed to make Himself man, in the form of His Son, Jesus Christ. God's quest to bring us back into His grace, to reconcile us, and a account of pure love; a love which had no beginning and will have no end.

     At this point, my head hurts and, if you have made it this far, I suspect yours might hurt as well. Yet whereas with many mysteries we can throw up our hands and say we've exhausted all there is to know about the topic, with the Christian Mystery the utter opposite is the case. It is a mystery, not because we can only say so much, but because we can never say enough! It not a mystery shrouded in darkness, but rather one obscured by too much Divine light! Isn't it fitting that the very story of God, who is pure light and goodness, is too bright to fully see from our terrestrial vantage point. Many modern atheists like to point to what the Christian cannot fully explain about God--why He permits suffering, why He allows Satan to exist, etc.-- as evidence of God's non-existence.  But the Creator, by definition, cannot be fully understood by created beings. Our lives are but a meager paragraph in the Book of Life. Our inability to explain the ways of God is more a weakness in the general human capacity to comprehend, rather than it is a peculiar fault in believers or in Divine Revelation itself.

     In the final analysis, the atheist (not the questioner or doubter, but the person who has definitively determined for themselves that there is no God) is a tremendously pathetic figure. He or she would never think of eating a spiky pineapple or a dirty carrot, just like he or she would never think of believing in a God they cannot fully see and understand. What the atheist fails to grasp is that God is necessarily ungraspable by us, by merit of His place as Creator of us! To grasp is to control. The great irony is that the only god the atheist could possibly believe in is precisely the one that would be imaginary, a figment of the atheist's mind borne out of a deep need to control. In lieu of this, the atheist is left with a world that, devoid of God's warmth and life-giving love, is cold and sterile. Or worse, the atheist, incapable of coming to terms with the result of their "beliefs", tries to construct their own religion, preaching the gospel of cultural relativism that permits what Blessed John Paul II wisely called the "Culture of Death".

     In the midst of all this sham and drudgery, one of the greatest expressions of the Christian Mystery we can have is hope. With our culture turning itself over to a bizarre and hitherto unseen militantly secular disposition, one which is not only dismissive but antagonistic towards God, it is essential to remember that the Truth of Christ is the same as it's always been, and the Grace of God remains with those who seek his love. Not to take any credit away from the President's efforts to make Catholics go against their consciences, but the Church has been through far worse persecutions under Roman Emperors. Yet the Church is still standing while Rome fell long ago, and will continue to stand long after the United States is mere history. You see, in the great Christian Mystery, Jesus has already won the victory for us. We need only stand on the right side.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Moments of Grace

     The other day, I had a friend come up to me, asking if we could talk for a moment. In the brief conversation we had, I could tell the person had been deeply touched by a moment of grace by God. A fallen away Christian, something in my friend's soul had suddenly been stirred, to the point that they wanted to sit down and talk about faith over lunch sometime in the near future. Thanks be to God!

     This episode was an affirmation of a truth I have come to believe: to become a Christian, one must have an encounter with the living Christ. I realize this may seem obvious on the surface, but I think many people have an upside-down view of what it means to be a follower of Christ. For unbelievers, the central theme of Christianity may appear to be a set of restrictive moral codes. From this perspective, it is easy to see why many are hesitant to first give up a portion of their conventional freedoms in the name of Jesus. But I believe this is a backwards view of what transpires in the heart of a Christian. The Christian does not follow Christ because he or she has been faithful to the teachings, he or she is faithful to the teachings because there has been an encounter with Christ! In other words, the strength to believe in the supernatural must be begotten by nothing less than an encounter with the supernatural. One does not come to know the Divine by the same manner in which one comes to know the multiplication table. There needs to be a revelation of inward grace in the heart of the person, from which adherence to the teaching's of the source of that grace, God, flows naturally and without hesitation.

     I recall a story I heard once about a very forgetful minister who had been assigned to a small, close-nit, rural congregation. Shortly after arriving, the most respected member of the parish died. The minister made the arrangements for the funeral service, which was expected to draw the entire community, and put the date in his agenda. Unfortunately, he put the wrong date in his agenda, and then subsequently took the actual date of the funeral off to go on an all-day hike. Upon returning from his wonderful day of relaxation, he went into his office to find a note from his secretary on his desk. She said that they had to call in another minister from the next town over, and the funeral service began two hours late as a result. She closed the note by "suggesting" that he ought to pay a visit that evening to the widow's house and apologize. Quickly, the minister changed out of his hiking gear and into his clerical dress. He drove over to the widow's home, where the friends and family of the deceased had gathered for dinner. He walked up steps of the front porch, his body shaking with embarrassment. He knocked pathetically on the large wooden door and swallowed hard, praying that he might maintain his composure. The door opened, and the widow stepped out onto the porch to face her absent pastor. Before the man could say a word, he found himself embraced by the woman. After a few moments, the woman pulled back, and, with a look of supreme pity, said, "You poor soul! You must feel terrible! Come on in and have some supper."

     After that evening, the minister found a renewed passion and zeal for his ministry.  Reflecting back on the experience, he would comment, "I stood naked on that porch, and that woman clothed me in love." The minister's preaching and shepherding of his congregation was revived because he had truly encountered the love of Christ of which he preached. God's grace and mercy acted through that woman.

     Once a soul encounters Christ, the Christ that lives and works through others, what choice does it have but to follow? Throughout the Bible, there are many examples of ordinary people, both rich and poor, who have a life-changing encounter with Jesus. He is no less present today than He was when He walked the Earth, as His promise to be with us always, unto the end states very clearly. He is present most gloriously in the Catholic Eucharist, but also in those moments of grace that come when we least expect them yet are most in need of them. To receive grace however, we must be open to grace. We need to humble ourselves with the realization that we are self-sufficent. Echoing the words of the Psalmist, if today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

I need your help please!

Dear all,

     Thank you for reading my blog! Since March, it has been one of the greatest graces in my life to be able to share my faith and love of the Lord with you. In this post, I am asking you for a small favor to help out a friend of mine. She is trying to win a trip to Orlando in January to attend a conference with 7,000 other Catholic University Students. It's a great opportunity and, to earn the prize, she has written a SPECTACULAR blog post. I had tears in my eyes by the end of it, as I have been in the situation she speaks of many times and have been one of people who simple looks or even walks away. I posted her post below in its entirety. All I ask is that you click this link and vote for her post, which is #7.

Thanks so much for your help!

God Bless,


“Anybody got forty cents?”
It was crowded in the downtown D.C. metro station. Men in suits and women in boots bumped and rushed and squeezed onto the platform. Seven minutes until the next blue train. I joined in the sprawl, with my intern badge and business wear, I fit right in.
“Anybody got forty cents? Forty cents?”
My iPhone buzzed, reminding me that it is 3 o’clock. You expired, Jesus, but the source of life gushed forth for souls… I had loved Divine Mercy since my freshman year of high school, when my grandmother gave me a St. Maria Faustina message and devotion prayer book. It was small, with faded pages that I flipped through fervently every night. I was amazed by the words of this little nun, humble and meek, who said Jesus loves and forgives even the greatest sinner. How great is His gift for us.
Six minutes until the blue train. More people streamed in down the escalators. A man with a cane hobbled near the entrance, talking to everyone and no one. A makeshift cast made of duct tape and wood caged his left leg, and his clothes were not enough for almost winter. I continued murmuring my Chaplet. For the sake of His sorrowful Passion…“Anybody got forty cents? Forty cents? It’s cold outside,” said the man to everyone and no one. The voice was getting louder; he was getting closer. I opened my wallet and pulled out my only dollar.
Have mercy on us and on the whole world. For the sake of His sorrowful Passion…Jesus promised at this hour, the hour He died, He would deny nothing to a sinner. I began to weep inside for this man being denied forty cents, over and over again. I made my way through the crowd of souls to the one being ignored, and handed him my dollar.
“Thank you,” he said with a toothless grin, then continued his call. “Anybody got forty cents? Forty cents? It’s cold outside.”
Five minutes until the blue train. Where was I? Oh yes. Eternal Father, I offer you the Body and Blood…The man began making his way through the crowd, which parted gracefully like the Red Sea. The image of Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem, clothes and tree branches on the ground flashed across my mind. Isn’t this how we enter heaven – small and broken, nothing on our backs?
“Anybody got forty cents? Forty cents? It’s cold outside. Anybody got forty cents? Forty cents? It’s cold outside, too cold.” The voice was getting louder in my head, and I wished someone would give him something, anything. I remembered I had half a turkey sandwich in my bag, uneaten from lunch. I weaved my way through the gaps in the crowd he had made. I tapped his shoulder, and he turned around and smiled. “Thanks again, young lady.” People turned and stared. Three minutes until the blue train.
“Are you hungry?” I asked, desperate to give him my sandwich, and anything else he asked for, anything that he needed. I had never felt such love for a homeless man. “Are you hungry? Because I have a sandwich if you want it.”
“Aw no thank you. I can’t eat that. Got no teeth, see,” he pulled his lips down to show his gums. And my heart broke, that the least of us should have nothing, not even teeth.
Know that whatever good you do to any soul, I accept it as if you had done to Me, said Jesus to St. Faustina. The words rang through my soul.
“Anybody got forty cents? Forty cents? It’s cold outside. God is good.” The pleading continued.
Jesus, You are in the lost and the hopeless. You are the widow. You are the orphan. You are the homeless sleeping in the streets. Here I am, with a roof over my head and more than enough blankets in the winter. I don’t know what I have to offer, but I offer it to You.
One minute until the blue train. A man still asking, no one giving.
“Anybody got forty cents? Forty cents? It’s cold outside. God is good.”
Jesus, who carried His cross for me, Jesus who was crucified for me, teach me to live as You died, full of selflessness and love. I can’t possibly return what You gave up for me, so I’ll give it to this man, and to the lost, the hopeless, the widow, the orphan.
The train doors opened. Suits came in and suits came out. One lonely soul stayed on the platform, standing crookedly upon his cane.
Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us all.The doors closed, but still I heard his words through the cracks, and even after, even now.
“Anybody got forty cents? Forty cents? It’s cold outside. God is good. I believe it.”
I believe it.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Not for All the Gold Under the Earth: On Virtue

     What does it mean to be virtuous? That is a question I have found myself meditating on the past few days. The great philosophers of antiquity spoke highly of virtue and the need to live virtuously. Plato said, "All the gold which is under or upon the earth is not enough to give in exchange for virtue. Clearly, this is no small matter! 
      In regards to virtue, I feel most of us more or less think we "know it when we see it." But to suppose that is to suppose that virtue is simply a matter of the end results, and not intertwined with the means or methods by which we end up performing virtuous acts. Consider this: two people sit alone in a diner at some out of the rest stop. Both have finished their small meal and their waitress disappeared into the kitchen some time ago and has yet to return to give them their checks. Both are eager to get back on the road and have grown a bit impatient. The first person entertains the thought and seriously considers on skipping out on the bill, but ultimately decides to wait it out and pay. The second person is tempted with the same thought of dining and dashing, but immediately resolves to pay. Of the two people in our story, which is the more virtuous soul?

     For me at least, I can relate much more with the first figure. I usually arrive at the "right" decision, but boy do I sometimes struggle in order to get there and do so for reasons that have to do more with social acceptability and the fear of getting caught than it does with doing the right thing for its own sake. That struggle, while noble, is an indication of a yet underdeveloped virtue. To be truly virtuous is to do precisely what our second figure does: he takes the right course of action precisely and solely because it is the right course of action. Virtue allows a person to make right choices virtually automatically, insofar as their is a clear right choice. The deciphering of what is "right" is rendered through the development of wisdom, which strengthens the virtuous person and sheds light on what ought to be done.

     I think it is important to note that to be virtuous does not mean to go through life without temptation. Both our figures were tempted with the same idea. Temptations are natural and not in and of themselves  a sign of moral deficiency. The mark of a virtue is to what degree that temptation is automatically dismissed. I find it to be true that the longer we allow a temptation to linger, the more likely we are to succumb to it. To be able to reject temptation at its first appearance is extra-ordinary: a sign of a well developed, virtuous individual.

     The elevation of the virtuous figure over the other does not sit perfectly well with me. I want to give some more credit to the person who battled with his temptation and ultimately won over it. I desire to give points for effort. But to do so ignores the effort that the virtuous person already exerted to reach his or her elevated moral state. Virtue is a gift, but it is a gift that needs to be maintained and cared for by the recipient.

     Often the virtuous figure gets ridiculed as something of a "do-gooder". One of the most salient memories from my childhood is a virtuous act by my mother. We were at Applebees (should have called them to see if I could have gotten some money for advertising) and the bill arrived shortly after the completion of our meal. My mom noticed that they had left our drink orders off , and immediately called the waitress over to correct the mistake. For the next 10 or so minutes, my family argued with my mother over whether we are responsible for correct the waitresses mistake. While at the time I though it was silly and we should have just taken the "freebie", I know have great respect for my mom's virtue. A good way to check whether an act is virtuous is to consider what we would do in the opposite scenario. If the waitress had overcharged us, I am sure our family would have been quick to point out the discrepancy. We are quick to correct a teacher's grading error in our favor, far less so when we received more points than we earned. Virtue allows us to cut through the fog of our society's moral relativism, a phenomenon that threatens to bankrupt our consciences and render us all utilitarians who deny that there are any such things as objectively good or right acts. That is why virtue is worth more than all worldly riches for Plato. It is through virtue that we can rise above our the faults of our human intellect and begin to desire only the good, only because it is the good. Virtue transcends the darkness of this world and helps us begin to squint into the infinite light that is God.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Simple Language

     It's been confirmed via my host mom: I am a polite, attentive person en español. While I would like to say that has been a conscious endeavor on my part, it has more to do with my language skills than anything else. While I am often sarcastic in my native tongue, I don't have adequate command of the Spanish language to be anything but exceedingly grateful and more or less pathetic in my speech. While my host mom knows me as a diligent listener, my actual mother can attest that I am often anything but when she talks, in English, to me. I listen in Spanish because I cannot afford not to, if I hope to comprehend anything of what is being said. In short, my vulnerability communicating in a foreign language actually makes me kinder. Insofar as Spanish goes, I am a mere child.

     In meditating upon this, I couldn't help but recall the words of Jesus. Numerous times, he used children as the example of how one ought to be in order to reach Heaven. What merit do children have? Certainly, they are not as educated as the scribes, and their command of language is not as grandiose. But they what they lack in vocabulary they make up for in their plainness of speech. Young children are naive of the methods we older, "wiser" folks use to put others down: our insults, our sarcasm, our slander. As such, their speech, while lacking refinement, is no doubt more redeeming than the most educated human being who speaks ill of others.

     It is a tremendous blessing I have been given, to be able to amass a great wealth of vocabulary and knowledge of grammar in the English language. Should not I use that language to glorify God and build others up? I am ashamed when consider all the times each day when I use language to belittle others or to discuss crude subjects that work towards the benefit of nothing and nobody. Better would it be if I spoke not at all, and maintained for myself the innocence of a baby. Fortunately, the choice is not either-or; either I speak in sin or I remain piously silent. I can speak well of others and well of things, while holding my tongue sometimes when I would rather speak negatively. In speaking only good, God is glorified because He is the creator of all that is good. Additionally, the good that I speak is magnified by the absence of the bad of which I do not speak.

     As the Book of Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is a time to keep silence and a time to speak. (Eccl 3:7) It is easy to speak often be called a hypocrite. That criticism is richly deserved, for often my idle speech in the presence of friends does great injury to my speech elsewhere or my writing on this blog. That fault, while a product exclusively of me and my own human weakness, is translated to God and the Church which I proclaim to love and follow. If that be the case, then it would be better that I speak not at all of my faith here. But because I continually receive an abundance of messages from readers who find my thoughts of some worth, I shall continue while striving to reform those parts of my character that are flawed. Please pray for me, as habits are not easy to break. It is comfortable for me to be sarcastic, to make fun of the little faults in others. But as the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI said, while the world offers comfort, it is not for comfort that we were made. We were made for greatness! And if I am to encourage others to seek greatness, than I better not neglect seeking greatness myself.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

So Many Books, So Little Time!

     The other day, I friend showed me a website called Goodreads where people enter in books they've read, rank them and receive recommendations for future books they might enjoy. In addition, you can compare the books you have read or want to read with those of your friends. I've just begun, so I am sure there's many more things the site allows bibliophiles to do too!

     Poking around the site and the recommendations it generated brought up a feeling of anxiety I often get when I deal with books or movies or any other subject of which there seems to be an endless supply. I like to think I am a pretty voracious reader, perhaps fitting in a good 15-20 books per year. But even if I assume I could maintain that high pace for another 60 or so years, I always come to the conclusion that I could never read every book I would like to read that already exists, let alone any the of millions of books that will be published in the next six decades. The feeling is enough to leave me temporarily despondent and a victim of reading-paralysis--how do I know where to begin to accomplish this seemingly insurmountable task!? But begin we must, if we are to get anything out of the great gift to humanity that is our capacity to create great works of literature.

      I think the same anxiety holds a lot of would-be Christians back from beginning their faith journey. The mysteries of God, unlike books, are actually infinite and cannot be fully discerned in our earthly lives. For many, that is reason enough to neglect God and focus on more tangible, completable tasks-- after all, life is often hard enough as it is, without worrying about whether we are doing enough to prepare ourselves for another one which is to come afterwards.

      But not to begin the journey of faith because the journey is so long is to sacrifice the tremendous gift that is to know even the tiniest morsel of God's mercy, grace and absolute goodness. It is as irrational as saying we are not going to read any books because we cannot read all books. Nor is it advisable to begin a faith journey predisposed to the idea that God does not exist because His ways are unknown to us. That is tantamount to saying that we because we do not understand what a book is about from the cover, and so we are going to read it with the idea that it's message is going to be impenetrable to us. More often than not, these sorts of things become self-fulfilling prophecies. God does not ask complete trust from the onset, although that would be ideal. The Lord simply wants those who come to Him to arrive with an open mind and heart: space in which he can enter in and refresh and revive your very soul.

     In this way, the journey towards faith in God is never one we take alone. Just like we might read a particularly challenging book with the help of a guide, God provides us assistance in what is the greatest challenge in every human life: coming to believe that we were created for a purpose, and that purpose is to become one with our Creator. In a word, God becomes our companion. The word "companion" is derived from Latin words meaning "come together" and "bread." Thus, a companion is one who breaks bread with us. Is this not a perfect description of the Christian God? Not only does God walk our journey with us, helping us to grow in faith, hope and love, He also becomes the Bread of Life in the Catholic Church's Eucharist. The Eucharist provides food for the journey, fulfilling what Jesus said: lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age. (Mt 28:20)

     I like to read because I feel it makes me a better person: more knowledgable, more empathetic, more grateful. So it is also with my faith journey. Both literature and God are inexhaustible wells of insights and lessons, emotions and development. Yet with God we have the assurance that, if we genuinely strive to do grow in the teachings of the Lord and His Church, all shall be fully revealed in the next life: we will have a personal Q&A with the Author of Life that lasts for all eternity.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Update from Costa Rica: The Halfway Edition

     In Costa Rica, today is a national holiday, Dia de las Culturas. It also is a momentous day of sorts: eight Mondays ago I left the United States and eight Mondays from now will be my first full day back in the U.S. in four months. It is a bit of a shock when I think I've reached the midpoint of my time in this country. It's terribly easy to take the natural beauty here--the volcanos, the palm trees, the exotic birds--for granted on a day-to-day basis. And yet, how many more times will my classmates and I get to experience that to which we have quickly grown acclimated if perhaps not fully accustomed during our brief sojourn? Perhaps a handful of times?

     This weekend, I went to a national park for three days with a few friends. One of them had another friend from her college back in the U.S. visiting for the weekend. It was neat to see a stranger to this country find her footing and her Spanish (she ended one of the evenings with the oft-forgotten send-off Buen Nocho). I have the utmost respect for people who are willing to put themselves in new and uncomfortable situations. I'm not even specifically advocating travel abroad, although that certainly fits the bill. It could even be as simple as spending an afternoon in a different part of town. Or it could be choosing not to move because of a noble reason: taking care of a family member or living a life a simplicity away from the distractions of a consumeristic society.

      In my life there's been plenty of instances where I feared or was at least uneasy about a new challenge or experience. I was nervous in high school to spend six weeks in the summer Washington, D.C. by myself with a group of total strangers. The next year, I questioned whether I could lead a retreat and give two 30 minute talks to a group of my peers. Entering college, I wondered if my decision to go away to Washington was the right one. Even this trip to Costa Rica was a tough decision. In all these examples, I decided to go ahead even without complete certainty. I trusted that God would provide me with whatever provisions would be necessary. As it turned out, all of those experiences were greater than I could have ever imagined. I've received support in every sense of the word from my family, friends and even strangers. What scares me today is not to say yes to such a new challenge, but to say no; to have a strong feeling that I should do something and not pursue it out of fear of failure. As Edward Field wrote:

Only the feathers floating around the hat
Showed that anything more spectacular had occurred
Than the usual drowning.  The police preferred to ignore
The confusing aspects of the case, 
And the witnesses ran off to a gang war.
So the report filed and forgotten in the archives read simply
“Drowned,” but it was wrong: Icarus
Had swum away, coming at last to the city
Where he rented a house and tended the garden.
“That nice Mr. Hicks” the neighbors called,
Never dreaming that the gray, respectable suit
Concealed arms that had controlled huge wings
Nor that those sad, defeated eyes had once 
Compelled the sun.  And had he told them
They would have answered with a shocked,
uncomprehending stare.
No, he could not disturb their neat front yards
Yet all his books insisted that this was a horrible mistake:
What was he doing aging in a suburb?
Can the genius of the hero fall
To the middling stature of the merely talented?
And nightly Icarus probes his wound
And daily in his workshop, curtains carefully drawn,
Constructs small wings and tries to fly
To the lighting fixture on the ceiling:
Fails every time and hates himself for trying.
He had thought himself a hero, had acted heroically,
And dreamt of his fall, the tragic fall of the hero;
But now rides commuter trains,
Serves on various committees,
And wishes he had drowned. 
     Build wings big enough to make this world a little better for your being in it.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Tough Love

     If we stop and think, isn't true that to do anything worthwhile, one must be willing to lose? In sports, playing "not to lose" often in fact leads to a loss. In business, not being innovative is a surefire way to lose customers. The same, I think, applies to our friends: if we hope to have sincere, meaningful friendships, we need to be sincere, even if we risk angering them in the process.

     Many people, myself included, all too frequently decide to critique our friends behind their backs. We do so because it avoids an uncomfortable conversation and the possibility of "rocking the boat", but it also erases the possibility that our criticism might prove productive and make our friends better people. If given the choice, most of us would say we want our friends to be open and honest with us. Even so, it is very difficult to hear someone tell you you're acting immaturely or doing something wrong. And because we know how it feels, we are often reluctant to tell others when they are in the wrong.

      Although it's not easy, I think having the courage to dish out "tough love" when it is warranted is the sign of a true friend and, more broadly, a person of substance. For example, my brother is tough on me sometimes, but I know he does it because he has my best interests in mind and he wishes to see me continue to develop each day into a better human being. Is his criticism always well received? Heck no! But once I reflect on it a few days later, I often find that he was right and it was just my pride that was keeping me from seeing my errors.

      I am always saddened when a person chooses to distance themselves from someone who pushes them to be better, instead opting to be surrounded by a group of friends who provides nothing but empty praise and affirmation. Having such friends is comfortable and fun, but if your friends are exclusively of this sort, who challenges you to be a better person; who warns you when you go astray? Just as one does not build muscle without resistance, one cannot build character without being challenged. In order to stay fit in our lives, we would do well to keep those people who push us most around, and try to be a true friend for others, regardless of how difficult it may be.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Exorcist on the Farm

     This past weekend, I went to a more rural part of Costa Rica and had the opportunity to spend two days and an evening at a small farm operated by the spryest 72 year-old man I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. During the evening, we were sitting in his living room, flipping through the surprisingly ample selection of channels he has access to in the middle of the forest (his farm grows coffee, cocoa (chocolate), bananas and yucca--a tuber vegetable similar to a potato). Eventually we settled on the 1973 horror classic The Exorcist. For the next two hours, we watched (aided by Spanish subtitles) as the devil possessed poor little Regan and caused her to do all sorts of grotesque and violent acts in her quaint little Georgetown bedroom.

     I think the movie continues to be so popular because evil has a very universal and recognized presence in the world. Regardless of your religious beliefs, I think most people agree that there is such an entity as "evil" that transcends people and even actions. How does one explain away an atrocity such as the Holocaust in anything but supernatural terms? Is it really plausible that one man could rile up such anger in a nation that they would be willing to become ignorant to the execution of millions of innocent lives? Can Germany's blindness to basic human decency be explained merely in terms of crowd psychology and the desire for revenge in the wake of the unfavorable peace terms of World War One? There must be something more supernatural at work in the world, as time and again throughout history, evil has reared its ugly head, bent on scattering the children of God and bringing them to the brink of self-destruction.

     So what then does evil do that is so tangible and often so effective? First of all, evil deceives. Just as God involves us in our own redemption through our acceptance of the free gift of salvation through Jesus the Christ, the devil seeks to make us participant's in our own damnation. He sows doubt and confusion in our minds, and lets them grow until he reaps our denial of God and refusal to live lives of holiness in accordance to the teachings of the Lord. If we are not aware and vigilant to these feelings growing inside us, then they can manifest into a full blown crisis of faith before we even realize there's a problem.
     This is made all the more easy if we do not actively make time for God in our daily lives through prayer and meditation. Just as one cannot hope to maintain a vibrant friendship without communication, a person who is shut off (meaning they shut themselves off) from God cannot seek His protection when the devil beckons.  That is not to say the devil does not tempt and deceive the prayerful. To the contrary, often it is those seeking holiness whom the devil most wants to claim as his own. A strong relationship with God, however, trumps the devil and renders him powerless so long as one holds fast to their faith.

     In much the same way that evil deceives, it also accuses. In the Book of Revelation, Satan is referred to as the accuser of our brethren. (Rev 12:10) Everyone hears from Satan daily: for he speaks in that inner voice that gives reason after reason why you cannot do something or attain something. He operates through lies that seek to obscure the truth that we all are created just the way we are so as to glorify God, who made us in His image and likeness and set us as the pinnacle of creation. He calls us stupid, fat, ugly, boring, lazy and unlovable. If we are to give money to a homeless woman, he accuses her of being an addict and us of being pathetically gullible. If we respect life, he accuses us of not respecting women. Worst of all, he calls us his child: a sinner unworthy of God's forgiveness. He reminds us of all our failings and asks us if we really believe we are worth saving. Unfortunately, many people buy into these lies and lose the will to keep trying (and often failing) to live good lives. Many accept his proposition that God could not possibly love them in spite of their blemishes, and so choose to go through life without God, filling the void of meaning with various fleeting ideals or causes or, worse yet, taking their sadness out on others. These people are the most dangerous, for they become human agents for evil, seeking to draw many away from God's loving embrace.

     Finally, evil scatters. In contrast to God and the Church, which seeks to unite all into God's infinite, singular love, evil seeks to scatter humanity in all sorts of perverse and destructive directions. Our modern society is fractured at a time when globalization should be revealing to us our common dignity and humanity. Why is this so? I believe the answer lies in the evil that occurred in the 20th century. Europe, the battlefield of two world wars, lost its faith and spiraled down a relativist, atheistic existence.    The Soviet Union took religion out of society. In general, the past 100 years has seen a decrease in religion and a rise in cultural relativism. Is it a coincidence that the time period was also the bloodiest ever? How does not explain the fact that an increasing number of wars are being fought by factions within countries? Evil is alive and well in our world. What began as a dismissal of God has morphed, most acutely in the past decade, into an assault on God. As we see in the Obama's Administrations attack on religious liberty, one of the fundamental rights dating back to this country's inception, it is now an expectation that religious organizations sacrifice their morality and discard their consciences as part of the new social contract.

     Evil has always existed, and will always exist until the end of time. It seeks to deceive us, to accuse us and to scatter us. Without a active relationship with God, we are at a heightened risk of falling prey to the devil's lies. With God, however, evil is no match and will be ultimately defeated. The decision is ours to make: to whom do we listen? We have seen the violence and sadness of evil. Perhaps it is time to see the peace and joy of the good that is found fully only through Jesus.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

On Humility

     This week, I began reading a biography of Saint Dominic, a 13th century Spanish priest and the founder of the Order of Preachers, also known simply as Dominicans. I have had the opportunity in Washington to spend some time with the Dominicans at their priory and was left impressed by the level of both their intellectual and spiritual fervor. St. Dominic founded the order with the idea that the friars would be men of study, and that they would utilize that knowledge to preach the Gospel for the salvation of souls. St. Dominic lived during a time when heresies threatened the Church, and his order of preachers sought to defend the Church as the true institution founded by Christ. Now, some 800 years later, the Dominican mission is no less necessary in light of our morally relative and increasingly atheistic culture; a culture that no longer wishes only to reject God, but one that seeks to altogether eliminate religion from society.

     One thing I learned while reading about St. Dominic's life he left virtually no written record. This surprised me, given that many Dominicans, such as Saint Thomas Aquinas, have been prodigious authors. As I continued reading, however, St. Dominic's lack of written works made more sense when viewed in the context of his humble life. He lived, like John the Baptist, that he might decrease in stature so that Christ would increase. This detachment from self was evident to those who knew him, and through their testimony we can learn a great deal regarding the benefits of a humble life. It is said that St. Dominic only spoke either to God or about God. He passed up higher offices within the Church, and only at the urging of his brethren did he accept the position of Master of the order he himself had founded. He viewed himself as dependent and possessed full confidence in his fellow friars, so much so that when he died he asked to be buried below their feet. Though he was a supremely holy man, he was also wholly available to all, regardless of their rank or station in life. He lived with insatiable joy, yet never forgot the severity of his mandate: to save souls for eternal communion with God.

     He lived in the world in such a way that his presence was known only through the good works God wrought through him. Surely, he would view it as a success that today he is not as well known as other saints, such as his contemporary Francis of Assisi. A description in the biography says:
Scarcely one ray falls on Dominic's cappa, yet so pure and holy is he that this little light is in itself a brilliant witness. The light is hidden because the man of God is far from the noise and blood of the battle; because, faithful to his mission, he opens his mouth only to bless, his heart to pray, and his hand to work for love; and because virtue, when it stands alone, is lit only by the light of God.
      Many of us do virtuous deeds. But the truly humble person does them for God alone. Even when we act to relieve someone's suffering or hunger, we are doing so for the Lord, whether or not we are cognizant of it. The truly humble person does not shy away from warranted acclaim by pretending their deeds or contributions are not valuable. Rather, a person filled with humility flees from accolades by always acknowledging that God is the giver of all talents and abilities. How foolish it is to accept recognition for things for which I was created to achieve. We see this more clearly if we consider nature. Nobody congratulates the Sun on its rising or its setting. Never will you hear someone applaud a tree on its growth. All rational humans, even if they deny God, have a general sense that these things are natural actions. So too are our commendable actions natural, in that they are the actions for which God created us. Our thanks, therefore, should go to the Creator.

     It is by pride that we set ourselves up for great falls. In humility, however, we can shield ourselves in the immensity of God. A humble person need not promote themselves because they are sufficiently satisfied in being pleasing to the eyes of God. Saint Dominic's example is one in which I try to imitate daily but fail at hourly. One of my evening prayers, which I took from a longer litany of humility, is a good one to reflect on:
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire that others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Bungee Jumps and Good Company: A Weekend in Monteverde

     This past weekend, a group of other students and I went to the tourist town of Monteverde, about a mile up in the rain forests of Costa Rica. This locale is a thrill-seeker's paradise, complete with opportunities to do all sorts of reckless activities. We got into town Friday afternoon and after a chance to drop our bags off at the hostel and grad a quick bit to eat at the neighboring restaurant, I was off to go on a canopy tour.

I believe I can fly!
     "Canopying" is just another term for what is better known as zip-lining. Essentially, I, with the help of a harness attached to a cable, was able to "fly" over the beautiful rain forest. The cables varied in length and slope, so the speed and duration of each varied from a few seconds to about half a minute for the longest, which was about 700 meters or 2100 feet. For one, they readjusted the harness so that the cable was attached to my back and this enabled me to play Superman for a few brief moments. The final activity, called "Tarzan", consisted of stepping off a platform and free-falling 40 meters (120 feet), swinging a few times and then being pulled to a stop. This experience induced that roller coaster-like feeling in my stomach, which was only quelled by the sudden tightness I felt in my crotch region when the operators threw the rope around the cord my harness was attached to in order to slow down my swinging. My voice rose a few octaves for the next 3 hours as a result.

Off I go!
     That free-fall was good practice for what was in store the following morning: BUNGEE! Until a few weeks ago, I had never considered whether or not I would go bungee-jumping if the opportunity arose. It just was not something on my radar. Yet once I was told it was available, I was pretty excited right from the start. And by excited, I think my exact words were, "Why not?" I carried that careless sentiment all the way to the morning of the big event, despite the majority of my companions literally losing sleep and shedding tears over the prospect of jumping 470 feet with no support save a cord around their ankles. To me, the concept was, in a paradoxical way, almost too dangerous for it not to be safe. Nevertheless, I looked forward to the experience, so much so that I volunteered to go first amongst our group. So my friend Colin and I stepped into the motorized cart that took us from sturdy land out to the above middle of gaping valley. Rather than describe what followed, I shall show you!
I expected the jump to feel like a roller coaster, but it surprisingly was much more peaceful. It felt as though I was floating through the air. The tug of the bungee was not strong, but the bouncing a hundred or so feet back up in the air was a bit disorienting, especially since I was upside-down. Overall though, I think everyone who jump said it was a worthwhile experience. For myself, I know taking that dive made me feel so small compared to the grandeur of the world around me. It's so easy to feel important in our day-to-day lives. This was a reminder of just how vulnerable and insignificant each one of us is by ourselves. Sometimes it's good to feel small.

     Bungeeing turned out to not even be the most perilous thing I did that day. Later that afternoon, some of us went canyoning, which was essentially rappelling down a series of waterfalls in a stream. This would have been challenging and fun, except that the rain had caused the water level to be at least twice as high as normal. Thus, it was challenging and dangerous, or, in the broken english of our guide: "I fear your safety right now." Unfortunately for us, he decided to make this declaration after we had already traversed through three of the six waterfalls and, more importantly, plopped down our non-refundable payment. C'est la vie, as they do not say in Costa Rica. Two of my friends went back the next day to finish the trail, and they reported it was much better. I was happy for them, and more happy that I had made it out of there unscathed...except for the nice gash on my left shin, which I received before standing in murky knee-deep water for two hours. Infection hasn't set in (don't worry Mom!!!!), so I think I cheated death once more.

     The trip wasn't all fun and adventure, however. One of the local ATMs decided to freeze up on Friday afternoon with my card in it. I missed getting back to the bank to retrieve my card on Saturday before they closed, leaving me with a choice to make: I could either have them destroy the card and wait for a new one to be delivered, or I could stick around until Monday. Not one to pass up on the chance to skip school and stay on vacation, I chose the latter option. Fortunately, my friend Peter stuck around with me to play the part of trusty companion and financier. After everyone else had left Sunday, he and I engaged in conversation with a lovely young couple from Bristol, England. Married for two years, they had decided to spend the next year traveling the world in lieu of starting a family. We spent two hours discussing topics ranging from the principle of state's rights in the US to the Opening Ceremony for the London Olympics.

     Monday, I was able to successfully retrieve my card. But faster than President Bush could declare, "Mission Accomplished", I was cut down by the mean streets of Monteverde. First, I slipped on an inclined sidewalk on the way to buying (read: having Peter buy) my return bus ticket, rather abruptly falling into what essentially was a sewer, scraping my elbow in the process (I swear Mom, I cleaned the wound with antibacterial something-or-other!). Then, about an hour later, I was crossing the street and stepped up onto the curb, which unbeknownst to me was particularly slick. My footing gave way and I lurched forward, right into a unfortunately placed metal pole supporting a street sign. Fortunately, my hand took on the trauma rather than my beautiful face. Unfortunately, the skin on my palm was cut (uh...hey Mom, do you remember if I got that Tetanus booster?!). And with that, Peter and I ended the trip with a brisk 80 minute hike through the cloud forest and got the heck out of that cursed town that I hope to return to before my time in Costa Rica ends.